Late last year, ad guru Piyush Pandey found himself at the Taj in Ahmedabad, seated opposite Pranav Adani, managing director of Adani Wilmar and the nephew of business tycoon Gautam Adani. Pandey had been beckoned to the city by the industrialist to discuss the rejuvenation of its edible oil brand Fortune. As Pandey settled in, the industrialist gave him the ad brief. “Sabko rula de, yaar, aisa kuch bana ki voh ad na lage (Create something that makes everyone cry, make something that doesn’t look like an ad),” he said. As the evening wore on, and several ideas were tossed, discussed and rejected, Adani added to the brief. He said, “Bahut samose tal liye, yaar, ab aisa kuch kar jo pahunche kahin (Many samosas have been fried, create something that touches people).” As Pandey recounts it, “Pranav was telling me that he wanted a triple century—but not telling me how to make that triple century.”
Pandey and his team eventually came up with the idea of an old woman who visits her ailing grandson in hospital with a tiffin-box of daal (lentils) everyday. She uses several tricks, from flattery and humour to anger and tears, but the nurse attending to her son refuses to let him be fed any non-hospital food. After tasting it herself, the nurse gives in, and the grandson breaks into a smile as his grandmother feeds him. Only then would the brand name appear along with the sign-off, ‘Ghar ka khana, ghar ka khana hota hai’ (Home-cooked food is home-cooked food after all). Adani loved the idea. Although the ad would have to be slow in its build-up, the payoff would be emotionally stirring. Once ready, it turned out to be 4.38 minutes long, unheard of for a TV spot. It could be run online, but its telecast on TV, where most ads last for a minute or less, seemed impossible.
But Pandey was having none of that. He did not just convince his client of the need to run it on TV, he also spoke to several channel heads to have the ad telecast without cuts and at a more feasible cost. In his to-be-published memoirs, Pandeymonium (Penguin Books India, 181 pages, Rs 799), Pandey returns to his favourite source of metaphors, cricket, to explain that conviction. ‘It was not just a century of an idea,’ he writes, ‘it was a triple century of an idea.’
Piyush Pandey is a larger-than-life figure in Indian advertising. Dressed usually in an untucked shirt with a button undone, his walrus moustache drooping off his upper lip, a booming voice accompanied by bursts of raucous laughter, he is said to smoke over 40 cigarettes a day and to drink his vodka with a dash of Sprite. The executive chairman and creative director (south Asia) of Ogilvy & Mather (O&M) India, Pandey has been working for the ad agency for 33 years now. He spends his off time between his house in Mumbai’s Shivaji Park and a retreat in a Goan village where he and his wife live with six dogs. He may party— even now, at the age of 60—till late into the night with his younger colleagues, but he’s often the first one in by about 9 am. Colleagues who reach late are known to find Post-it notes from Pandey awaiting them that say, ‘I’m missing you’ or ‘God! I am really missing you’.
In the last three decades of his career, Pandey has been behind some of the country’s most memorable advertising campaigns. Even seemingly mundane products like car batteries (Amaron) and adhesives (Fevicol) have become household names thanks to the ‘Piyush touch’, as the industry phrase goes. More recently, he crafted the BJP’s campaign for the General Election of 2014.
When Pandey joined the advertising industry in 1982, the Asiad was on and black-and-white was giving way to colour on TV. Until then, an ad meant a jingle or a dull sales pitch. O&M India, in Pandey’s words, was a solid, respectable agency back then, but not too well known for creativity. Ad copy suffered from what he calls the ‘South Bombay syndrome’. But he wasn’t here just to sell products. He wanted to tell stories. And reach out far and wide. “A lot of people in advertising at that time came from environments that made it tough for them to connect with the masses. But I was lucky enough to see the big change coming,” Pandey says over the phone. “As the reach of TV grew, you needed to be able to speak the language of the masses and be able to touch their hearts.”
Pandey grew up in a middle-class family along with seven sisters and a younger brother in Jaipur. His father, Indra Narayan Pandey, worked with the Rajasthan government’s cooperative department. His mother, Bhagwati Pandey, a homemaker, hadn’t finished her school education. “I know what you are thinking,” he says, “We were a complete cricket team. All eleven of us.” All eight of his siblings have done remarkably well. His ad filmmaker brother Prasoon Pandey and singer sister Ila Arun are no less famous in their fields. Among the others, there is an academic, a sitar player, a writer, a doctor and painter, and a writer and tourism entrepreneur.
Pandey’s book is most touching in his descriptions of his early years in the ‘creative factory’ of his family. He remembers waking up as a five-year-old on a cold winter morning to his father’s singing. One of his sisters has asked her mother, in incorrect grammar, “Amma chai pakiyi kya? (Mother, have you cooked tea?)” But his father, instead of correcting her use of the word ‘cooked’, has composed a song, ‘Chidiya choon choon karke boli bhor nikal kar aayee kya, bitiya padi bichhona pooche, ‘Amma chai pakiyi kya?’. (Little birds are chirping as the sun rises / my little baby, tucked up in her bed, asks, ‘Mother, is the tea cooked?’)’
Writes Pandey, ‘As I think back on those wonderful mornings, I feel that these were my kindergarten lessons in communication. Whatever you say, say it with respect for the audience, say it in a context that the audience can understand, say it spontaneously, say it without fear, say it not to intimidate or frighten, but to delight.’ He writes about his conversations with carpenters his family had employed to make a dining table. He speaks about his experiences with cobblers, and how no piece of footwear was ever discarded by the family, however old, until the cobbler gave up. His father pushed him into poetry. His sisters helped his Hindi.
In an amusing anecdote recounted in the book, Pandey’s father trains his seven- year-old son for an elocution contest. The poem his father picks, Meera ka Vishpan, about Meera, a disciple of Lord Krishna, is difficult and heavy, and Piyush fails to win the elocution contest. The next time, however, the father picks a light-hearted political satire that begins with the lines, ‘Idhar bhi gaddhe hain, udhar bhi gaddhe hain, jidhar dekhta hoon, gaddhe hi gaddhe hain (There are donkeys on my left, there are donkeys on my right, wherever I look, there are donkeys and donkeys).’ As the young Pandey recites the poem, pointing to one half of the audience and then to the other, the audience is in splits, and he is awarded a gold medal. The next poem is about a student who asks God for permission to make up answers during an exam. Again, the audience can’t stop laughing.
At St Stephen’s College in Delhi, Pandey found himself consumed by a passion for cricket (he was a Ranji Trophy player). After he graduated, he moved to Kolkata at the insistence of his cricketer-friend Arun Lal to become a tea taster.
Pandey spent three years sampling and rating varied types of tea, until—prompted again by Arun Lal who thought his career would be better served by his wit— he shifted to Mumbai to join advertising.
Aged 27, Pandey was hired by O&M as a trainee account executive on a salary that was roughly one-third of what he made as a tea taster. As a liaison man between the client and the creative department of the agency, he would often find himself being roped in by the latter for help with ideas. Once his national integration song Mile Sur Mera Tumhara hit success, however, it was creative all the way for him.
Luna, Fevicol, Cadbury, his campaigns would achieve success with unfailing regularity. He drew inspiration from just about anywhere. For Cadbury’s Dairy Milk, for example, his challenge was to appeal to adults as well, not just children. On a flight back from the US, a conversation he’d had with a 70-year-old acquaintance on the trip kept playing in his head, he recalls. The man had gone on a scary Disney Park ride soon after an angioplasty and explained that he was checking if the doctors had done a good job. “By the time my flight landed in Mumbai, I had the campaign clearly thought through, and a song written at the back of my boarding card,” he says. The commercial, about a young girl rushing onto a cricket field after her boyfriend hits the winning runs—with Kuch khaas hai playing as its theme song—was to prove exceptionally popular.
All of this, however, has been overshadowed of late by the fame Pandey has achieved as the man behind the BJP’s ad campaign of 2014. From the catchy, ‘Ab ki baar, Modi sarkar’ to ‘Achche din’ as a promise, all of it clicked. “If you look at political advertisements, you will see a lot of language that are not commonly used. It is more like two parties talking to each another,” Pandey says. “So what we used is how people speak commonly. That was the way it would be catchy.” It’s a campaign that will be talked about for decades to come.
The one revolution that Pandey admits he has no clue about, though, is that of online advertising. Pandey is famously technologically- challenged. He keeps away from digital gadgets and has only recently begun to use WhatsApp. When I ask how he plans to tackle this medium, he says he’s doing it by surrounding himself with those who are passionate about it. And just as he finishes his explanation, he returns, once again, to a cricket analogy. “You might be a terrific fast bowler,” he says. “But you still have to appreciate the wicket-keeper.”
BJP Campaign: The Walk to the Capital
It’s so easy to forget history. When we look at the composition of the current Lok Sabha, with the BJP occupying 288 seats, we forget that the victory wasn’t as simple as it looks. In July 2013, an opinion poll conducted by CNN-IBN indicated a divided India. The BJP was ahead, but only just. It seemed certain that the country was headed for a hung Parliament, with most of the opinion polls showing that no single party would win a majority and would have to cobble together a coalition government with other parties.
On 7 September 2013, the BJP declared that Narendra Modi, the then Chief Minister of Gujarat, would be its prime ministerial candidate. This was a master stroke, even as the media was speculating on whether or not the BJP would name a candidate for Prime Minister in case a BJP-led coalition was voted to power. The BJP’s announcement of Narendra Modi as its candidate suggested that he would be the Prime Minister of a BJP government, not a BJP-led coalition government.
Shortly after came the audacious target that the BJP set for itself and announced: 272+ seats. In other words, a simple majority without the help or support of any other party.
Who would the BJP choose as their communication partner? After numerous presentations, the BJP awarded the account to Soho Square, a WPP agency that Ogilvy managed. The first task for Soho Square was to understand the subtle shifts in voter sentiment.
Once we got an understanding of what the voters felt, we had to come up with what the voters wanted to hear and what they would believe.